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Interregnum a chance to review and modernise permaculture education

SKIMMING MY FACEBOOK, the item entitled Permaculture Institute ends teacher registration grabbed my attention though it is some weeks old now. Three things came to mind as my eyes passed over this item:

  1. The Institute’s opting out of teacher registration recognises the limited reality of what can be accomplished by a well meaning but undercapitalised organisation.
  2. The registration process was a valid exercise but was a historic artifact of permaculture’s early days and of the need to then provide some sort of quality assurance in regard to education.
  3. The registration was not inclusive of permaculture education as a whole as many permaculture teachers made the decision not to go with the Institute’s registration.

Fees and costs

The Institute set up their teacher registration service back in the early days of permaculture education as a means of teacher quality control. It was an admirable effort to provide assurance to people contemplating a permaculture design cource.

Unless fees are set to cover the cost of administering an ongoing service like the teacher registration, then what happened when the Institute abandoned the scheme in 2010 was more or less destined to happen. The process was unsustainable. Whether registrants would have been prepared to part with a higher fee that would have covered the costs involved is another question. It comes down to the perceived benefits of registration versus costs.

Answering the question of costs versus value for money ought to be done in the knowledge that:

  • a good number of people enrolling in a permaculture design course, perhaps more so a decade or two ago than at present, have a notion of becoming teachers themselves
  • few teachers have developed a successful business model for teaching the permaculture design certificate. That is, the charge they levy for the course seldom reflects the true costs of preparing material and delivering it. And what can be charged is not really up to the educator to any final degree, It comes down to what the market will bear, to what people are prepared to pay for a design course. And that’s quite a variable figure.

The unrewarded effort of designing a course and preparing content probably explains why teachers have been so protective of their teaching material. In the past, then-new teachers occasionally had the idea that those they learned from, or other teachers, would happily hand over course material to help them get started.

Wrong. Teachers weren’t going to hand over what they had painstakingly compiled and developed. The Institute, by adopting Bill’s book (Permaculture – A Designers’ Manual) as curriculum and content offered a way around this, yet it was the strictness with which their arrangement, their requirements for registration, was implemented that turned some off. Lesson plans had to be approved and teachers were to use only the Manual as curricula and teach it in chapter order.

Teaching as employment

There exists the idea that people inspired by permaculture wanted to become teachers because there were few other avenues of permaculture employment available in the past. The same could be said today though the Accredited Permaculture Training seeks to  redress that through its nationally recognised array of certificate courses.

While a few landscape architects and horticulturists have started successful small businesses — Steve Batley’s Sydney Organic Gardens comes to mind — there remains few avenues for people with permaculture qualifications to gain employment or to find a niche in which to develop a small business. Where are all those utes emblazoned with Jim’s Permaculture that were mooted not so long ago?

Local government sustainability education would seem a natural fit for those with advanced permaculture qualifications, however look at the people engaged in that area, including those with permaculture qualifications, and you find that they are already qualified teachers or have tertiary qualifications in environmental science. The latter are especially numerous in the field. It is for experience gained in relation to these qualifications, rather than permaculture, that they hold their position. This is suggestive of the early conception of permaculture design as a course that was undertaken by those already qualified in other design fields who wished to add an integrated design component.

There are a small number of possibilities opening in the field of community gardening, though the gardens are the products of organisations like Melbourne’s Cultivating Community which assists social housing tenants to get into food growing.

Community gardens, of course, are voluntary community initiatives and thus offer few, let’s be real and say virtually no avenues for employment stemming from the gardens themselves. Opportunities come from organisations that initiate community gardens, mainly in the social agency field.

As one woman employed in local government as a community garden coordinator said, much of the job involves interpersonal and group process skills rather than horticulture or landscape design (in which she has no qualifications). Being able to work with people and to solve the problems they come up with is a key criteria of her position. She got the position in part due to her background in community sustainability education.

Are these skills included in permaculture education to the necessary extent? Sustainability education is a specialised field and is one undergoing change. It necessitates a knowledge of behavioural change and how to encourage that as well as a knowledge of the particular ideas that inform sustainability educators.

I can recall at least three efforts to create small nursery-based businesses under the ‘edible landscapes’ rubric over the years, however the only one that I know of that has persisted is that at Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane. This, and the attempts to create permaculture-based small businesses, suggests that a component of permaculture education in small business/social enterprise/microenterprise development, perhaps as a specialised course taken as a follow-on the the design certificate, might be worthwhile.

International development

International development is an area that permaculture people first moved into during the 1990s. Some simply traveled and offered workshops where the opportunity was available. Some made their services available to local development agencies, an approach more likely to have lasting influence.

When we look beyond the opportunistic permaculture freelancer with their sporadic, short-term workshops, often without any follow-up to consolidate what they teach and no matter how well intentioned those people might be, we find that many of those with permaculture qualifications are working in fields related to some other qualification they have or have long experience working with non-government development agencies and a solid understanding of the aid industry and its methods and possibilities.

It has happened in the past — and this I know because I worked in a development agency where these permaculture newbies fresh from their design courses would come to — that the more starry-eyed among them actively sought placement in the field in developing country communities to teach their permaculture stuff. Virtually none had any experience in cash cropping or small scale intensive agriculture, post-harvest food processing or marketing and food distribution systems. They were well intentioned but that was insufficient and few had even kept a food garden for a year, through the seasons, with the planning for continuous cropping that continuous food production necessitates.

Suggest that they volunteer assisting administer the project management side or in helping run an agency office and you would get a ‘no’ — they wanted field placement. Learning how projects work and how a development agency is managed was not for them.

Whether this was the result of permaculture teachers talking up development work I have no idea, however it did indicate something about permaculture education and the sort of expectations that were created in it.

Registration as artifact

The Permaculture Institute’s registration served a good purpose when permaculture was young. It provided assurance that an educator had been properly prepared for teaching. That didn’t guarantee good teaching, of course, just that they had covered the content.

The problem for the Institute’s content was that it was quite restricted… only the chapters of Bill Mollison’s Designers’ Manual were offered as valid curriculum. The fact that the book dates from 1988 and has never been updated, while the world around it changed dramatically, raised a few concerns and led to people making the decision to teach their own course structure and not to seek Institute accreditation.

Thus, the Institute’s registration certified only those teachers adhering to the Designers’ Manual as curriculum and not all those graduating from design courses. In effect, a two-tier teaching system evolved, the Institute-registered and the independent teacher.

A PIL registration?

When the Institute’s announcement was made, the idea of Permaculture International (PIL) taking over the registration was mooted. Here, again, we run into the effort versus cost equation. Who in PIL would do this task and how would they be paid for what would likely become an ongoing and growing effort?

It might have been imagined that the Permaculture Research Institute would assume the task of registration, however they have remained quiet and are probably all-too-busy with their own work.

The Research Institute might have continue the process as developed by the Permaculture Institute, however there is confusion around the two bodies — the Permaculture Institute, based in Tasmania, and the Permaculture Research Institute based in northern NSW.

People new to permaculture sometimes think they are the same thing. And the names confuse in other ways. As someone asked, what is it that the Permaculture Research Institute researches and where do you find their research reports?


What the Permaculture Institute’s dropping out of teacher registration indicates is nothing more than a long-standing question that has emerged within permaculture from time to time —how do we maintain quality control in teaching?

The Institute tried to answer this with its teacher registration despite some opting out because of the restrictive requirements around accreditation. Permaculture International’s nationally accredited training polices its own teacher accreditation.

Irrespective of whether PIL takes up the registration of teachers, the collapse of the Permaculture Institute’s system provides us with a welcome interregnum, a welcome break between what was and what will be. It is within this narrow timeframe that we have the opportunity to review and modernise the permaculture design certificate, to agree on its core parts and examine what is in it that needs updating or discarding and what should now be included. This is a rare opportunity and it should not be allowed to drift past.

Thanks, Permaculture Institute, for you good work in this area over the years.

Shine on brightly.

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